Down to Earth: Bath Herb Collections

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Illustration by michael eagleton

As a child, I loved to gather seeds, acorns, Kentucky coffee beans, fishhooks, bits of interesting wood, and rocks with holes in them. Too often, though, these treasures ended up in the washing machine. “James Edward,” my mother would scold, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you! When will you learn to start emptying out your pockets before your clothes go into the wash?” Even so, she never discouraged me from making my collections.

Once, I decided to turn our empty chicken house into a museum. I’d spread out all of my things so that I could find and fondle them. I’d arrange my dried seed heads by shape, keeping the bundle of rudbeckias next to the bundle of purple coneflowers. One area would have just pods–sweet pea pods, false indigo pods, pods of all kinds. There would be another place for the arrowheads I found in plowed fields and still another for the rusty pieces of iron from the alley where an old house had been.

But my mother said a firm, quiet “No.” I would not be allowed to make the chicken hutch my repository; there would be no museum beyond my boxes, shelves, drawers, and pockets. My mother didn’t share my vision, but she continued to encourage me to ­gather and collect things–and to find uses for them.

To decide what kind of bath blend we would make, we spread out all of the ­materials on her large deck, which overlooks a ­pristine Ozarks ­valley.

Nearly two decades ago, I met Billy Joe, who is a lot like me. She, too, likes to collect seeds, plants, leaves, feathers, rocks, and other interesting objects. From the rafters of her kitchen dangle a hundred or so good-sized bundles of herbs, harvested from her garden or gathered from the woods and nearby meadows. She makes many useful things from her herb hoard–a fact that would make my parents happy.

One morning, Billy Joe invited me over to help her mix bath herbs. She told me to bring wood moss and peach leaves, both plants she knew I ­collected and dried, and any rosemary, marjoram, or roses I might have on hand. I enjoyed the three-hour drive to her house in the cool air of early winter. When I arrived, Billy Joe was busy taking down dried bundles of herbs from the rafters.

I carried in the bags of roses, rosemary, and other things that I had brought. To decide what kind of bath blend we would make, we spread out all of the materials on her large deck, which overlooks a pristine Ozarks ­valley.

We chose lots of dried peach leaves, which we crushed by hand and dumped into a large iron claw-footed bathtub on the deck. The tub has been, at various times, a water garden, a planter, a winter hot tub, and a beverage cooler; today, it would be a mixing bowl. “Peach leaves are great for the bath,” Billy Joe said. “They leave the skin feeling really smooth.”

Next, we added marjoram and rosemary leaves for relaxing muscles and joints. Lots of roses went in for fragrance. We added a couple of pounds of lavender flowers and an equal quantity of calendula flowers to soothe skin. Then in went soothing sage leaves and nettles. For aching muscles, Billy Joe added about twelve pounds of Epsom salts, which provide suds, and about three pounds of borax, which softens the water.

As we mixed the ingredients, we raised so much dust that we had to tie bandannas over our mouths and noses. In a few minutes, we were ready to double-bag the blend in large plastic bags and label the outer ones. Billy Joe planned to give her share as gifts, filling pretty jars and wrapping them in cloth bags with instructions attached. I would package mine to sell when I gave lectures. Of course, we both intended to save lots for our own soothing winter baths.

Over the years, I have developed many other blends for the bath, some relaxing, soothing, or invigorating, some for sore muscles and tired skin. I continue to gather bundles of herbs and hang them to dry. On crisp, clear afternoons, I like to mix bath blends and think of that afternoon on Billy Joe’s deck when we filled her bathtub with herbs.

Yes, I still come home with pockets filled with rocks, fishing lures, unusual seeds, and other treasures I find along the lakeshore. Some of them even wind up in the washing machine.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

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